Bhogal jewellery store heist: How a Chhattisgarh hairdresser managed to pull off a massive heist

The ‘mastermind’ behind the sensational ₹25-crore Bhogal heist has a history of targetting jewellery shops, working alone, and leaving behind almost no trace, say officers from several States who have tracked him for years. Samridhi Tewari and Shubhomoy Sikdar find out what drove a hairdresser from a small town in Chhattisgarh to pull off one of the biggest heists in the national capital

October 06, 2023 12:47 am | Updated February 08, 2024 04:34 pm IST

The 75-year-old jewellery shop in Bhogal where Lokesh Srivas allegedly committed a ₹25-crore burglary.

The 75-year-old jewellery shop in Bhogal where Lokesh Srivas allegedly committed a ₹25-crore burglary. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

On September 9, two men alighted from a train at Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station in Delhi after a 24-hour-long journey. A fortnight later, one of them would go on to commit one of the biggest heists in the national capital, decamping with jewellery and cash worth ₹25 crore. But that was not the reason they had come to Delhi.

Lokesh Srivas, 32, and Shiva Chandravanshi, 23, had come from Raipur to buy equipment for the latter’s gym. They were looking for something to eat when an autorickshaw driver offered to take them to the nearby market in Bhogal.

South-east Delhi’s Bhogal is full of small, one-room eateries, bakeries, and juice shops. So, when Srivas and his friend reached the market, they couldn’t help but notice the biggest commercial establishment in the area, the four-storeyed Umrao Singh Jewellers.

It didn’t take Srivas a lot of time to ascertain three key details — the jewellery shop did not have a dedicated security guard, it was abutted by a four-storey semi-residential building, and the marketplace was shut every Monday. He was, after all, not a petty thief.

There is a marketplace back in his hometown in Chhattisgarh where — since 2019, when he stole 70 cell phones from a shop in one night — shopkeepers have been taking their unsold phones and accessories back home after pulling down the shutters.

The “one-man army”, as Inspector General (Bilaspur Range) Akash Kumar Yadav terms Srivas, has been booked in at least 34 cases of theft and burglary in four States — Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh — and has spent close to two years in jail.

Over the next few days, he visited the area many more times. The plan to pull off the biggest burglary of his life began taking shape.

The beginnings

Srivas grew up in a tiny mud house with his parents and five siblings in Pandartarai town in Chhattisgarh’s Kabirdham district. His father, Kapil, worked as an agricultural labourer in Nayapara village, where sugarcane is the primary crop. After two sugar factories were set up, the area saw a lot of changes over the past few years. However, the economic progress did not really trickle down to the landless labourers.

To supplement his meagre income, Kapil often worked as a part-time barber, which is his family’s ancestral profession.

So, when Srivas discontinued his studies after Class X, he was expected to take up hairdressing as a profession. He soon got an opportunity to work as one in a shop in the nearby city of Bhilai. Kapil now says his son squandered a perfect opportunity because of his “criminal tendencies”.

“One of my sons-in-law had a hairdressing shop. He asked my sons Rohit and Lokesh to join him. It was a big opportunity for them. But not long after, Lokesh was caught stealing, and it has never stopped since,” he says.

As per police records, Srivas was first booked in a case of theft in 2016, registered at the Pandartarai police station.

Kapil, now a sharecropper, has shifted to a puuca home built from funds under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. He says efforts to counsel his son were always met with hostility. “I tried to reprimand him at first. But because of his aggressive nature, I stopped saying anything, and look where we are today,” he says, breaking down.

Since the Delhi heist, many reporters and residents have approached him, asking if he received the proceeds of the crime. “I have not got a single penny from him. Dig up our home with a JCB [earth mover] if you want and find out for yourself,” Kapil says.

The 1x1.5-foot hole drilled in the store’s strongroom

The 1x1.5-foot hole drilled in the store’s strongroom | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

The heist

After arriving in the national capital, Srivas made several trips in and around Delhi. For a few days, he stayed at a guest house in Chandni Chowk, from where he bought a hammer. He also purchased a handheld disc cutter from Shradhanand Marg. Tools like screwdrivers and pliers were also always stored in his backpack, an officer said.

At 11 p.m. on September 24, a Sunday when the marketplace shuts early, he climbed up the stairs of the building abutting the 75-year-old jewellery store. He then hopped on to the roof of the shop and disabled its CCTV cameras and Wi-Fi network, after which he walked down to the ground floor and slept for the next seven hours.

After waking up, he helped himself to some chocolates, biscuits, and soft drinks from the fridge in the store and waited for some time.

When nobody turned up till 11 a.m., he used the disc cutter and drilled a 1x1.5-foot hole through the strongroom. Srivas packed nearly 18 kg of gold and diamonds, as well as ₹5 lakh in cash, and walked out of the adjoining building.

The same evening, around 9 p.m., he took a bus from ISBT Kashmere Gate to Sagar in Madhya Pradesh with all the stolen jewellery in his backpack. From there, he took another bus to Jabalpur, and then to Durg in Chhattisgarh.

The shock

Nothing seemed amiss when 77-year-old Mahavir Prasad Jain, the owner of Umrao Singh Jewellers, arrived at the shop on September 26 around 10.30 a.m. and rolled up the shutters.

However, when he stepped inside, he noticed dust all around the hole that Srivas had drilled in the strongroom.

“At first, I couldn’t understand how the place could be so dirty and full of dust. Later, I noticed jewellery missing from the display shelves. I ran towards the strongroom and realised I had been looted,” Jain says.

He tried to access the CCTV footage but found that the wires connecting the six cameras to the recorder had been snipped.

“I don’t have a security guard for my shop. There’s one security guard who is in charge of securing the entire area. Because the shutters were down, I realised that the thief may have entered through the adjoining building,” he says.

Srivas arrested from his rented accommodation in Bhilai. 

Srivas arrested from his rented accommodation in Bhilai.  | Photo Credit: File Photo

Cracking the case

The Delhi police started their investigation into the case by scanning the footage of about 150 CCTV cameras in the area. They also reached out to mobile network providers to give them the dump data on how many cell phones were active in the area on the night of the heist. However, a major lead in the case came to them from their counterparts in Chhattisgarh.

On the lookout for thieves involved in the burglary at 10 shops in two markets in Bilaspur between August 19 and 23, a police team in Durg, following a tip-off, had arrested Chandravanshi and a man named Lokesh Rao, associates of Srivas, who was also present at the spot but managed to elude the investigators by jumping from their apartment’s window.

Upon interrogation, the two told the police that Srivas had committed “a big theft in Delhi”.

Within minutes, officers from the Chhattisgarh police linked him to the burglary in Bhogal and tipped off the Delhi police.

On September 29, Srivas was arrested from his rented accommodation in Bhilai.

Deputy Commissioner of Police (South East Delhi) Rajesh Deo says they identified the suspect by matching his photograph sent by the Chhattisgarh police with an image captured by a CCTV camera in Bhogal on the day of the crime — September 26.

Srivas was brought to the national capital from Chhattisgarh by the Delhi police on a transit remand on Wednesday. A day later, a court sent him to two-day police custody.

The ornaments recovered from the accused. 

The ornaments recovered from the accused.  | Photo Credit: File Photo

‘Counter-intuitive thief’

On being interrogated, Srivas told the police that expanding his hairdressing business was his primary motivation to steal.

The police have also found evidence showing that he had come to enjoy a lavish lifestyle funded through the proceeds of crime. “He had started wearing branded clothes, driving expensive cars, and staying at premier hotels. All this drove him to commit more thefts,” says Santosh Singh, Superintendent of Police, Bilaspur.

In the records of the police station in his hometown, Srivas finds a mention in the list of habitual offenders or “Nigrani Badmaash”.

“Nigrani Badmaash are repeat offenders who are generally out on bail. The local police are mandated to call them to the police station once a month and enquire about their activities,” says SP (Kabirdham) Abhishek Pallav.

On how the police track such criminals, Singh says, “We keep a tab on the old offenders and those who are out on bail. Whenever there is a burglary, it is easy to track offenders within the State as we maintain a database of the criminals.”

Several police personnel who have tracked Srivas’s crimes speak about his “counter-intuitive traits”. A head constable, who had arrested him in connection with a theft in Odisha, says Srivas would often not hide his face while committing a crime despite being aware of the presence of CCTVs. He says Srivas targeted areas where he hardly knew anyone or even understood the local language. “He admits guilt easily and often leads the police to valuables he has stolen without much effort. He is also known to have used cell phones while committing crimes,” an officer says.

Within the first two months of 2022, Srivas allegedly burgled two jewellery shops, a pharmacy store, and a store in a shopping mall in Vizianagaram, Andhra Pradesh.

SP (Vizianagaram) Deepika Patil says Srivas committed the crimes without leaving a trace. “All that we had was the face of a masked man captured on a CCTV camera,” she says.

The Bilaspur SP says Srivas spent a lot of time on YouTube and Google to understand the layout of the target locations. “Having broken different kinds of lockers at jewellery shops, Srivas was, of late, taking tutorials on how to unlock them with specialised tools,” he says.

Family’s disbelief

Anjani, Srivas’s second wife (his first died from pregnancy-related complications), doesn’t understand what drives her husband to keep committing big-ticket thefts. “He was earning ₹10,000 a month as a hairdresser. We also get some money by renting out a portion of the house. In the city where we live, this much is enough for us. I don’t know why he compulsively keeps committing crimes,” she says.

Six months after their wedding, he was arrested in a theft case in Kawardha and let off after 25 days, she says. “He promised me that he would never do it again, but when I got pregnant the next year, he committed another theft.”

“After that incident, even I would be called to the police station in connection with the investigations, and sometimes even tortured for the thefts he committed,” she adds.

Anjani says her pleas to her husband to give up crime for the sake of their newborn also fell on deaf ears. Kapil, too, cannot pinpoint a reason that pushed his son into the world of crime.

A senior Chhattisgarh Police officer says they had even offered Srivas monetary help to set up a hairdressing shop to stop him from committing burglaries.

Easy bail

Despite committing crimes repeatedly, Srivas has continued to secure bail in almost all States quickly. “The Andhra Pradesh police tried their best to oppose his bail petition. We placed all our clues together. However, it is for the court to decide. Had he not been given bail, the situation would have been different, and he would have stopped after his first burglary,” says the Vizianagaram SP.

According to an officer in the Bilaspur police, after every burglary, Srivas would keep aside a portion of the loot to pay for his lawyers in order to ensure that he secured early release.

Anjani says in their most recent conversation after his arrest in the Bhogal heist case, her husband assured her that he would be back “in two years at the maximum”.

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